April 25, 2003

Africana Center Renovation Nears

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Even after several decades of existence and growth into one of the most prominent leaders in its field, narrow hallways, low ceilings and the occasional library flood provide daily reminders of the Africana Studies and Research Center’s need for renovation.

However, help is on the way.

Faculty members at the center are close to finalizing architectural plans which could lead to the beginning of a $3.5 million construction project later this year.

The Africana Expansion and Renovation Committee, representatives from the Provost’s office and University Design and Planning and architects from New York City are meeting on Monday to discuss updated plans. They hope to finalize a proposal to send to the Board of Trustees.

“[The proposal] depends on Monday,” said Don Ohadike, director of the Africana Center. “If we are satisfied, we will send the plan to the trustees for consideration.”

Ohadike and former Africana Center director Prof. James Turner, Africana studies, said that many of the current problems include a lack of office space for faculty and staff, heating problems and excessive student and library crowding. The building was previously a fraternity house.

“It is in serious need of renovation and expansion,” said Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin.

Funding for the project was approved by the Capital Facility and Project Committee in January, according to Turner. Initial renovation plans were then sent to the New York City Board of Trustees meeting in February. However, the proposal was turned down because the plans were mainly in their preliminary stages. Also, key figures such as Turner and Ohadike were not present at the meeting to share their thoughts on the project.

“They had one piece of paper which was a computer-generated picture of what the design would look like. It was a very flat, one-dimensional look. It didn’t show any other aspect of the design. It was a very poor document to take an impression,” Turner said.

Ohadike said that if the plans had gone through, the construction could have started as early as May to finish by their goal of January 2004. Instead, the project is now delayed.

“We are getting frustrated now because of the unexpected delays,” he said.

The plans are set to create four offices, one seminar room, one classroom and one large auditorium in addition to a new entrance, a faculty lounge and a slight expansion of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library. If the plan is approved, Turner hopes the renovations will be completed by spring 2004.

Turner said that the main concern that the Africana committee wanted to address was a structure to improve multipurpose room and space dimensions and also creating a decor which represents “what the program stands for.”

It has already been a year since the University administration committed to fund renovations for the center. Ohadike said that the parties involved “spend a lot of time haggling for the desired amount of money.”

“The initial allocation was very small,” he added.

Even with the delays, Turner said that this lingering issue has only been truly addressed with the appointment of Martin. Turner explained that he talked to President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes and President Hunter R. Rawlings III at the beginning of their terms and both expressed general interest and support, although no action was taken.

“[Martin] had an interest and her interest was more sustained,” Turner said.

According to Turner, Martin assigned designated members of her office to follow the proposed renovations. He said that her maintained support might have been due to her previous time spent as a professor at the University.

“She’s the best friend that the Africana Center has ever had,” Ohadike said.

Turner said that students in previous years have also helped push the renovations to the top of the agenda by organizing broad discussions and protests about the needs for the center.

“These issues became a concern for students. It affected their education,” he said.

Ohadike said that the center is “one of its kind at Cornell.” Because of the residential movement toward North Campus, many students use Africana’s libraries instead of trudging down to Central Campus libraries.

Turner said that the center came at a time when the University was “at the crossroads in development.”

He also said that the school was changing its racially exclusive policies, and factors such as the advancement of African-American education and the Africana Center “opened the University and the process of having a multicultural community.”

“We’re a much more open, progressive university,” Turner said.

He added that many people across New York State acknowledge the center as being in the forefront of its field. Ohadike added that “students from every part of the campus take our courses.”

“I’d say the enhancement of Africana at every level … is very important,” Martin said.

Archived article by Brian Tsao